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Decades later, bitter memories of Chavez Ravine

The Dodgers prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the stadium in Chavez Ravine. For the neighbors who were uprooted from the site, it's a somber milestone.

April 05, 2012|By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times
  • Tony Montez, 81, left, Pete Urrutia, 80, Albert Elias, 80, and Al Zepeda, 74, stroll a dirt path in Elysian Park that overlooks Dodger Stadium. Their families were among those forced out in the 1950s.
Tony Montez, 81, left, Pete Urrutia, 80, Albert Elias, 80, and Al Zepeda,… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Lou Santillan was a teenager when his parents were forced out of their home in Chavez Ravine, the hillside area overlooking downtown Los Angeles that would eventually become the home of Dodger Stadium.

The family's love for the old neighborhood was so strong that Santillan's father wrote a Mexican ballad about it. Lou organized an annual reunion of the other families who were uprooted before the bulldozers moved in to clear their little community. And like many of his generation, the 77-year-old had no love for the Dodgers.

In spite of that family history, Santillan's son Eddie, 46, has been a Dodgers fan since childhood. He grew up cheering for Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and, of course, Fernando Valenzuela. And as a parking attendant for 27 years at City Hall, he's gotten his picture taken with the O'Malleys, Tom Lasorda and even Frank McCourt.

PHOTOS: Remembering Chavez Ravine

"There's people who won't even step into Dodger Stadium. They're still bitter. My uncle, who was a priest, he wouldn't have gone to any Dodger games," Eddie said. "But I had no anger or frustration against them. I love the Dodgers. Growing up in L.A., that's our team, you know."

Eddie Santillan, like many other fans, was jubilant last week when McCourt sold the Dodgers to a group including former Lakers star Magic Johnson. The sale came on the eve of a new season and the 50th anniversary of the opening of Dodger Stadium in 1962. The milestone will be marked by tributes and remembrances.

But for families like the Santillans — who call themselves "los desterrados" ("the uprooted") — the anniversary will be more somber and complicated.

PHOTOS: Archive: Clearing of Chavez Ravine

The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles in 1958 — playing their first several years at the Coliseum — was a seminal event, heralding what many saw as the city's arrival in the big leagues of world metropolises. But the removal of more than 1,000 mostly Mexican American families from Chavez Ravine to make way for the stadium is a dark note in L.A.'s history.

The last family was dragged away kicking and screaming and weeping, and the removals became a rallying symbol of Latino L.A. history and activism.

Many of the people evicted are long dead, but there are still more than a few aging witnesses to the episode.

On a recent afternoon, Eddie pushed his father's wheelchair outside of an Alhambra nursing home. Lou suffered a stroke about five years ago, and Eddie and his brother gladly stepped in to help their dad continue to organize the yearly picnic for survivors from the ravine.

But although more than a few of the participants wouldn't be caught dead in Dodger Stadium, and reveled in the team's struggles, Eddie's compact did not mean abandoning his team or regular trips to the stadium.

"You know I like the Dodgers, right, Pop?" he asked his father.

"That's you," Lou replied with exaggerated curtness. "It's still America."

Then with a mischievous glint in his eye, he added: "Hey, send the Occupy people to Dodger Stadium!"

A close community

Before the homes were cleared, Chavez Ravine was a rural village overlooking downtown L.A. It was a place of ramshackle homes, dusty unpaved roads, roaming goats, sheep and cattle, and a largely Mexican American population. People like Santillan remember a life of few luxuries but a sense of community and adventure, with sprawling Elysian Park as a backyard playground.

"When there was a party in the neighborhood, nobody called the police that you were making a lot of noise because everybody was at the party," recalled Albert Elias, 80, of Bellflower.

In the early 1950s, the city used eminent domain to begin moving everyone out to make room for a federally funded public housing project. Most families received several thousand dollars, though the amounts varied.

Most of the families were moved out in the early '50s, with promises that they could be resettled into those new housing units. Al Zepeda, 74, remembers the exact day his family left the neighborhood: Jan. 28, 1952. He turned 14 that day — his birthday party becoming a moving party.

"I celebrated by moving boxes, moving furniture and pulling our refrigerator up some stairs," Zepeda said with a laugh. "That was my party."

But the public housing effort came during the McCarthy "Red scare" era, and critics condemned public housing as being part of a "socialist plot."

The housing plan was eventually abandoned, but by then most of the neighborhood was cleared. By 1957, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley was already thinking of moving the team west. Flying over L.A. one day, O'Malley asked about the site. The next year, the city agreed to a deal for the land with O'Malley. A year later, only a few holdouts remained in the neighborhood.

On May 9, 1959, the city moved to evict the group. TV cameras captured one particularly ugly confrontation in which sheriff's deputies dragged the Arechiga family from the property.

Dramatic scenes

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